Chuck Leavell Heads Back to the Woods with Keith Richards and John Mayer
You mentioned Athens, which has been a musical womb for many years. I know you helped open up the Georgia Theater last summer. Can you talk a bit about your connection to Athens and the experience of re-opening its legendary theater?
CL: Well, as you know Athens is a big music town, and mentioning my good friend Randall again, he has a deep connection to Athens. Macon has a great history as we know, but sadly at this day and time it’s pretty much a ghost town. Athens still has a pretty active musical community there, and I didn’t really want to get into the Atlanta scene—it’s too sort of city vibe for me. Athens is a nice small town with a great vibe and with the university right there. So all of those factors pulled me like a magnet up to Athens. To answer your first question about the Georgia Theater, the GATH has such a great history and we did open it initially with Sea Level many years ago, and when it burned down it was a heartbreaking thing. I’m just so glad the owners were able to put it back together, and it’s certainly an honor to be asked to reopen it during that week. So yeah, I still love going to Athens and I’m sure I’ll do more work there. I really like Jim’s studio and of course he’s not the only studio there. There are a lot of great studios there and a lot of great places there. A lot of great history there.
How did you first get in contact with John Mayer?
CL: Well, it’s funny; the first connection was something I was really unaware of. He lived in Atlanta for a while and worked with Clay Cook. They had a duo and they were writing and recording songs together out of Atlanta. And John reminded me of this and I totally forgot about it, but Clay had gotten in touch with me. John and Clay wrote a song and they had a conversation about getting a piano on the track. My name came up, and they said, “Oh, I don’t think he’d ever do it.” But, anyway, Clay got in touch with me and it was one of those sessions where I did it without physically being there. They sent me a tape, and I overdubbed on it and sent it back to them. So I never saw them, and I didn’t even know it was John. So that was the first connection.
The second connection came on the tour with The Stones (2005). John and his blues trio opened up a few shows for us on the last tour. We met casually backstage. I loved what he was doing with the trio. The guy is so talented, and capable of going in so many different directions. He’s so versatile, and we had pleasantries backstage. I complimented him and told him I was a fan, and he reminded me about the thing that I played on and I thought, “Wow, this is something else.” So anyway, tour ends, time goes by, and John reached out to me out of the blue. It was actually through management. My rep called me and said, “Listen, I just got a call from Mayer’s people and they’re interested in you playing on some stuff.” So it started out as a one week experiment in New York.
John blocked out time at Electric Lady Studios and had written new songs and I think the idea was to get together. He wanted to use his bass player Sean Hurley, who’s been with him for the last four years or so. In the first round of sessions we had Jim Keltner, so it was the four of us: Jim, Sean, John and myself. Things went really well, so we all went back home and about a month later I got a call saying they wanted to continue this. However, Sean had actually suggested Aaron Sterling on drums who is somebody that Sean works with in Los Angeles doing sessions and whatnot. They wanted to try someone who might bring some fresh blood to the table, so the next round included Aaron and that just went great. And that remained the core band throughout the rest of the recordings. I think we were in New York maybe four different times—anywhere from a week to two weeks maybe even three weeks at a time for the recordings. And then we did rerecord one tune out in LA during the mixing process when John wanted to rework a tune. I just can’t say enough great things about John. I love working with him, I love his talent, and I was very sad as we all were that he had to pull the plug on the tour due to his throat problem. He has a great attitude, he knows he’s going to have to go through this surgery again and it’s gonna take even longer this time. He went through the process last year, thought he had beat it and as we were rehearsing for the tour he was struggling and saw his doctor and the doctor said, “I can tell you that it’s back.” So, he’s going to have to go through this whole procedure again, and it’s going to take a long time. His feeling was, “I don’t want to go immediately back in there, I’d like to have some time and try some new things and when my mind is ready for it I’ll go do the surgery.” So I think his surgery is now scheduled to come up in the next month or so. I am in Montana working with John Mayer right now. We’ve been recording out here with him for the last ten days or so. Things are going great—I think today is our last day and I head back home tomorrow.
You are featured on the Watson’s Riddle album which came out this year. In addition to you, the group features guitarist Steve Watson and the Marshall Tucker Band’s Paul Riddle. When did you get involved in that project?
CL: Paul Riddle is an old friend, he was in Marshall Tucker of course, and there was quite a bit of interaction in the Capricorn days between Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers Band. They opened for us quite a lot. When The Brothers disbanded in ‘76 and I formed Sea Level, we opened for the Marshall Tucker Band. I played on a couple of Marshall Tucker records—I was friends with all those guys. So, obviously Tucker goes through the personnel changes, and Paul decides he wants to pull off the road and teach, which is what he’s been doing for the last 25 years or so. We stay in touch. I get a call from him once a year or so, and we’ll talk family and music and whatnot.
So anyway, he began these informal jams with Steve Watson and a couple of players in South Carolina in the Spartanburg area. And they had a guy who was playing some keyboards but Paul thought of me and he called me up and said, “Listen, we’ve been doing this thing, it’s starting to take shape, I’ve got three or four songs that I’d like you to play on. How can we do this?” And I said well why don’t you bring the files down to Macon and we’ll do it at Paul Hornsby’s place.
Hornsby used to produce Marshall Tucker, as you know. And he’s got one of the only studios in Macon, Georgia these days. Paul remains a friend, and he was actually a mentor for me back in Alabama. We had a band together in Tuscaloosa. Anyway, we go down to Paul’s place and we played the three songs and it turns out great and Paul takes it back and plays it for Steve and the rest of the guys and everyone’s happy. He calls me up and says, “Why don’t we do another three?” Long story short, I wound up on the whole thing and he calls me up and says, “Listen, you’re on the whole record and we’d like to use your name on it if it’s okay with you,” and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to have my name associated with you guys.” They’ve been after me to try to get me to do some live gigs with them but mercy me I’ve got a lot going on with my own project and with John, and who knows what The Stones are going to come up with, so I’ve been unable to accommodate playing any live shows with them. I enjoy the record though and think it’s a great record for that genre of music.
You recently received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy with the Allman Brothers Band. What does that award mean to you?
CL: First of all, I was very, very grateful that all the guys thought that I should be included because it has been a long time [since I have been in that band]. I don’t mind saying that my era with the band produced some of the best and largest selling records—_Brothers and Sisters_ remains the largest selling record the band ever had. It was such a different thing to have a piano player come in after Duane’s death—and to have that be successful and work, I think, was one of the reasons why the guys wanted to include me. It was such a unique era for the band. So I was very, very grateful and honored that they would include me.
I look back at those days as an absolute golden era of music making. There was so much going on in Capricorn Records in the city of Macon, even before I joined The Brothers I was playing with Alex Calver, I was in recording sessions with Bonnie Bramlett and Bobby Whitlock. I mentioned the Tucker guys. There was just so much activity and it was a wonderful time to be a musician living in Macon, GA. Then finally getting that position with The Brothers in 1972 and recording not only Brothers and Sisters, but at the same time doing Gregg Allman’s first record Laid Back, and then shortly after that doing Dickey Betts’ first record Highway Call and then continuing to tour with The Brothers and doing the Win, Lose, or Draw record and the live record that we did. So, it was a fabulous time for me. I was barely twenty years old when I joined The Brothers and it was just such a big step for me, a great opportunity, and I always look back on that time as a golden era for me.